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Tim Myers: Hey, what happened to proportional representation?

Myers’ Musings

Posted: June 20, 2009 4:18 p.m.
Updated: June 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Since no one ever spends serious money doing actual statistically sound polls around a Santa Clarita City Council election, the entire process since city formation stands fraught with apocryphal tales that achieve mythic status.

My personal favorite? After losing by a "mere" 800 votes in the 2004 election for two seats in a three-person race, Henry Schultz allegedly spent the next campaign in 2006 speaking personally to 900 individuals, including another candidate, Jack Murphy, assuming he captured their votes.

With champagne ready to open on election night 2006, Schultz discovered he actually captured around 1,400 votes less than he did in the 2004 election.

My second favorite? Rein Shuerger, an L.A. County sheriff's deputy, ran in 1996 and 2000, coming in very near the bottom each time. No big surprise, since he did not campaign in any meaningful or usual way.

Conventional local wisdom held that Rein, a civic-minded individual, got himself on the ballot and then failed to move forward, either due to other obligations or to a certain shyness.

It turns out that Rein actually possessed a two- to three-person campaign brain trust that would sit around his kitchen table two to three hours every night plotting his campaign "strategy." How much better the result if they actually made it out of the kitchen?

I enjoy sharing these numerical oddities with Scott Wilk, who actually makes a part of his living running local races. Wilk possesses a great understanding of the sheer, unemotional arithmetic of local elections, and his most recent move to effectively run the three Santa Clarita City Council incumbents in the 2010 election in the form of a parliamentary "slate" stands nothing short of genius.

Here's why.

It seems that many people complain about the activities of the three current incumbents: Laurene Weste, Marsha McLean and Frank Ferry. Mayor Ferry even possesses the distinction of an anonymous YouTube poster making elaborate anti-Ferry videos under the nom de querre "NotAFerryFan."

How could this be, if all three achieved re-election so handily in 2006 (and they did)?

It turns out that when one examines the election results in 2006, a very real possibility exists that a slight majority of those casting ballots actually voted for someone else other than the three incumbents.

The analysis goes as follows: In 2006, 11,982 voters cast 32,936 votes for an average of 2.75 votes per ballot. (Some voters "bullet vote" for only one or two candidates in a three-seat race.)

Using this average across the field of candidates, a scenario could arise in which 5,932 people voted for the incumbents and a slightly larger group of 6,050 did not.

How could candidates win if more people voted against them than for them? The at-large system utilizes a two or three "past the post" system. "Past the post" means the top vote-getters win without the necessity of an outright majority - they are declared victors no matter what the percentage of their votes.

Contrast past the post elections with proportional representation, in which a candidate needs to win an outright majority to win the seat.

Thus the more candidates in the field, the more diluted the "opposition" vote.

In fact, the last time city council incumbents showed up impressively in election results was during the aforementioned 2004 balloting, Bob Kellar and Cameron Smyth (now an Assemblyman), between them, probably captured 72 percent of the votes cast.

So this brings us to 2010 and Wilk's slate strategy. What difference will it make?

Well, if Wilk can somehow firm up the candidates' prior voters to not only recast votes for them in 2010 but also vote for the other two incumbents (since they now sit together on one "slate"), this could increase their total group vote tally from 16,305 to 17,795 - a whopping 9-percent increase in total votes captured without any single candidate obtaining one incremental voter.

What does this mean to any opposition candidate? If this new pool of votes divided proportionally with the 2006 results, any challenger would need to get more than 5,600 votes to get third past the post and secure a seat.

This means that a candidate, with the slate locking up all the other votes, would need to capture an unattainable 93 percent of the 6,050 votes in opposition.

For another candidate to unseat a second incumbent, he or she would need 99 percent of the votes in opposition.

But Tim, what about turnout? In my next column, I explode some of the myths concerning local turnout and its impact on elections using - you guessed it - actually arithmetic.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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